Why We Have “Strategic Conversations” Instead of “A Strategy”
A 7-Step Collaborative Learning Process
It’s summer here in New Zealand, the Pōhutukawa trees have bloomed and are already starting to drop their beautiful red carpets at our feet. Between beach time and friends time, Nati and I are having strategic conversations to guide our work for The Hum in 2019.
Our approach to strategy is fairly unique so I wanted to share some of the highlights here. I’ll start with a bit of our local context, then pull out some of the distinctive themes of our process:
❌ No strategy
⌛️ No deadlines
⏪ Walking backwards into the future
🧭 Making maps for navigation
👂 Listening to understand
🤜🏼 Making the offer
📞 Permanent beta
At the time of writing (Jan 2019), The Hum is two people — me and Natalia Lombardo. We provide practical guidance for decentralised organisations. This includes co-ops, startups, NGOs, government agencies, anarchist collectives, and anyone else adopting new ways of working with less hierarchy and more collaboration.
We’re a business that prioritises meaning, joy, and positive social impact ahead of profit. Most of our paid work is training, coaching, and hosting team retreats. We also do a lot of unpaid work for the common good, writing articles and books, giving public talks, and supporting non-commercial projects pro bono.
My family lives in Aotearoa New Zealand so we spend the southern summer here, and then head north to do most of our work in Europe. We’ve been doing this for a couple of years, so we’re not starting from scratch.
❌ No strategy
I have some hangups about “strategy”. In the worst case, a strategy can freeze your collective intelligence in the past and constrain your ability to make good choices in the future. Or it becomes a great big watered down consensus that everyone ignores in a week or two.
So for The Hum we don’t have “a strategy”, as in, a set of static decisions about an unknowable future. Instead, we have a series of “strategic conversations”: an intentional learning space for us to develop shared language and to co-imagine possible futures. Our strategic process grows shared context so we can make better decisions in the future. We’re not aiming to make a lot of decisions now.
⌛️ No deadlines
We’ve conducted these conversations over the past few weeks. We have no time pressure, our conversations are separated by days of rest, percolating, fermenting, filling in details, and making leaps of insight. Our ideas are enriched by the swimming, podcasting, hiking, reading and dreaming in the between-times.
We don’t want to get stuck looking inwards, caught in our own little bubble. The gaps in our strategic conversations are openings for rest of the world to come in. What’s happening out there? What are people excited about? What are they concerned about? How can we help?
⏪ Walking backwards into the future (ka mua, ka muri)
Dealing with complexity can be daunting. Rather than making a lot of guesses about the future, our approach is to spend much more time looking backwards to check what we’ve learned.
The first step for us, the place we always start, is with a “retrospective”. This is a simple lightweight process that can crack just about any organisational challenge. We start with 3 questions, spend some time in private reflection and note-taking, and then share out loud.
Facts: looking back at the past year, what happened? (where did we go? who did we work with?)
Feelings: how did it feel? (when did we feel joy? frustration? anxiety?)
Change: how can we use our strengths and learn from our struggles to make next year even better?
This conversation produced our first artefact, the “personal vision”, or maybe more accurately “notes to self”. These are little reminders like: we’re both happier travelling by train rather than by air; let’s share the admin & logistics work more evenly between us; and let’s do these retros more often.
🧭 Making maps for navigation
In the first pass, we just capture the most pressing things, the stuff that’s “on top” due to recency or significance. We’re not aiming for completion here, it’s a wide-angle sweep. From that material, we noticed some big categories, like “people we work with” and “the products we sell”. In the second stage we go into further detail for each of these categories. Over the course of a few days we filled in a few lists: all of the cities we worked in; all of the collaborators we worked with, etc. Our office (kitchen) slowly filled with these sheets of paper.
There’s a few reasons why we use these big colourful visual artefacts. They’re in our daily work space, so we’re steeped in them like a good cup of tea. We keep returning to them and adding more information, as new ideas and connections spark with time.
Post-its are moveable, so we can use the 2D space to map relationships. We use icons, colours, graphics, and position to increase information density. This is a kind of “systems thinking”: zooming out to read maximum context in minimum visual area. We want to load up a year’s worth of memories and experiences into a couple of easy-to-grasp summaries.
👂 Listening to understand
We ask all our workshop participants to tell us what they want to learn before they attend the training. So we’re growing a nuanced understanding of the specific use of language in different locations and networks, and good ideas about what we might offer in future. For instance, the people we work with in Stockholm are “self-organising”, in Berlin they’re “horizontal”, and our friends in Spain are into the “commons”. We summarise this as a list of hashtags noting trends, loosely tied to cities: #teal #agile #metamodern #platformcoop #p2p…
We also collect written feedback from nearly everyone after they’ve attended, giving us insights about what they loved about their experience with us, and what’s missing. This feeds into our ongoing product development, e.g. maybe we should run a “co-leadership” training program.
Continuous improvement, oh yeah!
We chose a random sample of about 15 customers and summarised their journey from first hearing about us, to paying us the first time, to becoming an ongoing customer. Looking across this list, some insights start to jump out: e.g. our habit of sharing useful knowledge freely in public is good for business, as well as being a nice thing to do; and, we should pay more attention to our follow-up, to give the relationship a chance to deepen.
These kind of “obvious” insights are what we are sifting for in our strategic conversations: they’re really easy to see when you zoom out, but easy to miss when you’re down in the detail of day-to-day operations.
🤜🏼🤛🏽 Making the offer
After multiple days of looking backwards and “booting up” with context, we finally turn our attention to the future. Now we think: what are we going to offer in 2019? There are many lenses into this question.
One lens is about the depth of relationship between us and our customers. Each stage represents more learning and a higher price. Each step builds on the previous:
Discover: we share our knowledge freely through blog posts, articles, podcasts, tweets, conferences.
Train: in a short workshop we can combine lectures, exercises and peer dialogue to create an engaging participatory learning experience in 2 or 3 hours.
Practice: in a longer workshop, there’s time for participants to practice applying the lessons to their real organising challenges.
Guide: after a training, we support you with regular calls for ongoing coaching and guidance while you’re back in your day-to-day work.
Deepen: with a multi-day learning program we can build enough trust to open up the sensitive conversations (e.g. power, money, conflict) and really start to shift the organisational dynamics.
Another lens looks at the actual content of our training: what are the lessons we are qualified to teach? What are we excited to share? What are people looking for?
Because we get so much feedback from participants, we’ve already rebuilt our training content a couple of times. This year we’re adding more lessons and exercises, and adding some structure so the most important messages stand out.
The image above shows the “content spiral”:
Retrospectives are in the centre because they are the birthplace of collective intelligence. Whenever we’re stuck, return here.
One half of the spiral is about the culture of trust: interpersonal skills, psychological safety, conflict, power, etc. This is feelings: we want to grow spaces where everyone matters.
The other half we call minimum viable structure: decision protocols, roles, digital tools, money, etc. We’re looking for the smallest set of agreements that hold us in the sweet spot between order and chaos (the chaordic path).
In previous years, all our training material has come from our own lived experience in decentralised organisations. Now we’re enhancing this material with more academic research and more stories from other organisers.
📞 Permanent beta
This point is critically important: while we’ve spent a lot of time in discussion and research, we still haven’t made any decisions yet. Our thinking has developed a lot over the past couple weeks, but our knowledge, lessons, and plans are all held lightly.
This week we’re starting into the most important part of the process, getting on the phone with our partners, customers, mentors, and peer-coaches.
Through each conversation we’ll improve our offer based on their wisdom.
This is why we don’t have “a strategy”, just an ongoing series of conversations, always testing, learning, and moving forward in relationship with others.
After 10 or 20 of these calls, you can expect to see new events and offers posted on our website. At this stage, we’re guessing we’ll be moving through Europe from mid March to late October.
Update June 2019: we moved to Europe and now live in Italy!